In 1991, when Lee Bradley started farming near Paonia in the North Fork Valley of Colorado, he was hired to manage a fruit farm owned by the coal company, Cyprus Coal Corp. Mine bosses gave him a ridiculously hard goal: Make money.
Bradley decided to focus on marketing. “We shined the apples and sold them wherever we could,” he says. With the pressure on him and his wife Kathy, they also opened a farm stand inside their leased barn close to a highway.
“At first, we were only going to sell what we produced. But people had money, so we scrambled, grabbing local products from everywhere to have more for people to buy.”
A few years later, in 1996, Homestead Meats, a local, natural beef (no additives) cooperative, began, with only five families involved. Plant Manager Gary Peebles recalls that everyone agreed to “keep it small and try the idea.” Now six families strong, he says, “No one thought we’d have 40 employees or a packing plant.” Not quite all grass-fed, the beef is finished with grain, “ensuring consistency and marbling,” says Peebles.
Consumers got on board, as many people have become increasingly concerned about how the beef they buy is produced.
Now, Peebles reports, Homestead Meats just bought Callaway Packing, which doubles their production to 80 local animals processed weekly and sold throughout Western Colorado. Best of all, they are no longer subject to the commodity market, where 85% of beef is processed by four corporations.
Stories like this apparently make Delta County a model, attracting young farmers and ranchers. Thirty percent of Delta County’s farmers were considered “new and beginning” farmers in the 2017 USDA farm survey, and most are pursuing natural but not strict “USDA organic” practices.
When the documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, played at the Telluride Film Festival in 2005, few Coloradans had heard of Community Sponsored Agriculture, which asks dedicated consumers to pay farmers up front for weekly boxes of food.
Fast forward 17 years, and hundreds of CSAs, as they’re called serve cities and rural areas in Colorado, reports Farmshares.info, including several CSAs in the North Fork Valley.
The widespread availability of natural produce and meat wasn’t always a given. For decades, most products grown in the North Fork Valley were shipped to cities. Today, it’s resort towns like Aspen and Crested Butte that see North Fork Valley food and wine at their farmer’s markets or in their CSAs.
Bradley recalls a meeting 20 years ago of the newly formed Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), where he doled out some advice that gave the up-and-coming juice maven, Jeff Schwarz, a hot idea.
“Clean up your farm, get a cash register and you can sell stuff to the public right there,” Bradley recalls telling Schwarz, whose Big B’s Juices now processes 7.5 million pounds of apples annually for juice and cider, much of which he sells directly to the public at his outdoor restaurant. Schwartz scoops up every available apple locally and imports the rest from Washington.
Today, what Schwarz and Bradley have in common is that their thriving businesses sell a wide variety of food, wine, and diverse crafts. Exploring either place can turn into a daylong event.
“I think it’s all about knowing your farmer,” says Bradley. “People wander around the farm. They see how you operate and pick stuff themselves, which gains trust.” He is not certified organic, saying that the cost is too much and ties his hands when pests invade.
And the best part? Young people who want to farm see local opportunity. “A business called The Painted Vineyard is getting started close to me,” says Bradley. It will have a tasting room, a B&B and a camping area, and Bradley figures its customers will also be his.
Meanwhile, near retirement at 70 but still farming, thanks to his son, Ryan, Bradley continues to help newcomers to the valley. One example is Storm Cellars Winery, a Sommelier-trained couple from Denver, run by Jayme Henderson and Steve Seese. They came to the valley knowing wine but not much about planting vines, repairing equipment, or making wine from scratch.
“We kept going back to Bradley,” says Henderson, “and he kept helping us out.”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to lively discussion about the West.